Over the years, and especially as a child, few things would get me more excited than a trip to the zoo. I love animals, biology was always my favourite subject at school and being close to so many rare and exotic creatures never failed to get the hairs on the back of my neck standing up on end. I’ve been a regular visitor to London Zoo my whole life and I’ve seen it evolve from being a bit of an embarrassment and it’s near closure in 1991 to a far more appropriate and animal friendly attraction. but there have been negative experiences too and I have a few reservations about zoos and the role they play in conservation. Too often have I seen larger mammals pacing the same patch of ground in an apparently endless and numbing cycle; even when they have what is generally accepted to be a large enclosure. This is to say nothing of the difficulty in getting a picture displaying some natural behaviour without a load of mesh or plate glass getting in the way; a near impossibility.
One particularly negative zoological experience occurred when on a family holiday in France, sometime in the early 90s. the conditions there were very poor. There were large animals kept in very small cages and sanitation was less than adequate. even as a child I could tell that this was not how things were supposed to be. There was a period when London Zoo was beginning to get like that with its animals not in the best condition and its finances in a far worse one. but even now that they have successfully turned themselves around it still doesn’t seem quite right that there are lions, tigers and gorillas in a small corner of Regent’s Park. Posters on the underground network currently boast that the zoo has ‘London’s biggest penguin colony’. How many penguin colonies does London have? should it have any at all? with the best will in the world can any inner city sanctuary really claim to have enough space to provide a suitable environment for such animals?
As an aside, to bring things back to photography for a moment, there have been an increasing number of controversies about using captive animals in your work. By all means take photos of captive animals but you have to own up when you do so and not try to palm it off as a shot you got in the field. One particular scandal was when the winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year for 2009 was stripped of his title and prize money for using what turned out to be a semi-tame wolf in his now iconic shot. I was particularly saddened by this as it is genuinely a brilliant picture, he just should have come clean and said what it really was from the beginning.
It can be argued that zoos like Chester, Paignton, Whippsnade and Colchester and safari parks like Longleat and Woburn Abbey have the sort of acreage to be able to provide an enclosure that can give the animals what they need – room to roam, room to hide, room to interact with others of their kind or, indeed, to be solitary if that is more appropriate. but then there’s still the question: are we keeping these animals here for our own entertainment or is there a tangible benefit to them?
There are several high profile and mainstream organisations that argue zoos, in a perfect world, would be closed and conservation efforts focused on animals in the wild. the Born Free Foundation argues that zoo-based schemes that aim to breed animals in captivity and then release them into the wild are all but a myth. they say that there have only ever been 3 animals successfully reintroduced to the wild by British zoos: the partula snail, the British Field Cricket and Przewalski’s horse. Not a single primate or big cat has ever made it to the wild from a British zoo. they go on to say that captive breeding programmes only exist to provide zoos themselves with more animals and have little or nothing to do with increasing numbers in the wild.
One of Britain’s most famous conservationists, Chris Packham, takes a slightly different approach. he is a great believer in zoos, indeed his girlfriend runs one, but he believes they should focus their efforts on animals that they actually stand a chance of helping. he argues that pandas, tigers and other mega-fauna are too far gone to be saved. on this front I’m inclined to agree; in my day job I’m a geneticist and it’s widely acknowledged that you need at least 5,000 individuals to be interbreeding to ensure the long term survival of a large mammalian species; less than 2,000 and you’re in serious trouble. There are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild and there isn’t a singular breeding population of tigers that large either, so even if there wasn’t another tree cut down or animal hunted they only have a slow decline into disease and ill health to look forward to. It’s not a complete impossibility though; cheetahs, my personal favourite, are so genetically similar that you can graft skin from one animal to another without fear of it being rejected. This can only be the case if at some point in their past there were only a very small number of genetically similar animals left. Indeed, looking at the human genome has shown that at some point in pre-history there were only 20,000 of us left – but then maybe we’re a special case.
Packham goes on to say that these large, fluffy animals are emblematic of the struggle to conserve the environment and people are more likely to participate if there is something cute and fluffy to be saved. but the vast majority of the millions spent on conservation goes on just a tiny number of species. he argues that the money would be better spent protecting the environment they live in rather than any individual species; spending those millions on buying up tracts of rain forest would be a better plan; that way you protect the environment as a whole and the full range of biodiversity within it.
On the other hand, there is a very high chance that within my lifetime many of the larger mammals we all know and love will be extinct in the wild and if we don’t have a breeding population in captivity then they simply cease to exist; and this, for many, is reason enough to validate the existence of zoos. It is simply not enough to have a few battered old examples in the Natural History Museum; and as wonderful as David Attenborough’s documentaries are they can’t compete with seeing an animal in the flesh. It may be the case that we can’t teach a captive born animal how to survive on it’s own in the wild, but if we don’t at least have a working copy of the design then how will we ever make it work properly? Zoos also work to ensure that the populations they have are outbred and maintain their hybrid vigour by swapping animals for breeding internationally; so if we did ever figure out how to train captive bred animals for life in the wild then we have a stock of animals ready to go. but give me 1 year and a million pounds and I could have that all arranged for you in one freezer’s worth of little tubes.
Zoos undoubtedly play a role in education that shouldn’t be underestimated. they can teach us more than a few trivial facts about the fastest, biggest or smelliest creatures out there. Good zoos have a strong focus on the environment as well as the organisms within them; they will often have projects in far flung corners of the world trying to preserve the rain forests of Borneo, or showing farmers how to grow crops more efficiently and without killing everything that wanders onto their land; this is all good work which is to be encouraged.
Also, is there, perhaps, something to be said for purely having them for entertainment? Is that necessarily a terrible thing? It doesn’t sound any worse than laughing at the less talented people that audition for X-Factor (just give me a moment to cleanse my keyboard after typing that word) and 8 million people do that every week. Zoos are fun, I nearly always enjoy myself when I visit them, and I go to quite a few zoos. I also look forward to the day I can take my children and grandchildren to the zoo and teach them about the amazing creatures on display there, hopefully kindling in them a love of biology that I myself have always felt, and that that in turn would open doors to science and critical thinking in general. This could be a reason in and of itself; perhaps zoos exist to inspire the next generation of ecologists without which the natural world is truly doomed?
I find myself thinking that the Earth doesn’t care what species live on it, plant or animal or otherwise. It used to be a steaming hot rock of magma, it also used to be a solid block of ice. 65 million years ago 85% of all the species on Earth were wiped out by a meteor, the Earth didn’t care. the big mammals we love so much wouldn’t have ever existed if it wasn’t for that extinction – neither would we. That wasn’t even the biggest mass extinction event that has occurred, there have been at least two that were even more catastrophic. 99.99% of all the species that have ever existed on this planet are extinct and that has nothing to do with us. but the Earth doesn’t care. the Earth will be fine.
I don’t think there is a right answer to any of this, it’s all personal choice. consider it a thought experiment where the goal is to learn to question everything, even the things you like, at least once in your life. I guess what it boils down to is your personal answer to this question: is a tiger that has never walked through a jungle, never once hunted it’s dinner, never located it’s own mate, is such an animal still a tiger; or is it merely the shadow of one?